Disinformation

The Infodemic: Islamophobia escalates during Covid-19; the real harm of Trump’s health advice

Welcome back, and a special welcome to our new subscribers. We are tracking the global spread of coronavirus disinformation and how it’s shaping the pandemic response. 

In today’s Infodemic: the staggering consequences of Covid-19 hate speech, Brazil’s fake news law dilemmas, the real harm of Donald Trump’s health advice and a very emotional donkey in Spain. 

But before we dive into the dangers of bad information, here are simple things you can do to spread the good stuff:  

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Russia and China continue their joint information offensive targeting US-owned biolabs. 

  • Today, the Chinese state-owned broadcaster CGTN released a video, set to dramatic music, stating that “the biological laboratories of the United States give us the creeps” 
  • The video falsely claimed that “hundreds of thousands of innocent people are exposed to dangerous pathogens” by the labs
  • These labs are a long-held target of Russian disinformation, but since the pandemic began, China and Iran have joined in attacking them 

Meanwhile, China is building a huge coronavirus testing facility in the Persian Gulf, which the U.S. has dubbed a “Huawei of genomics.” The U.S. is worried that the lab will pass personal data back to Beijing, reports Bloomberg – but with its national Covid-19 death toll far outstripping that of any other nation, it is hardly in a position to offer an alternative.

170 million people — that’s the staggering reach of Islamophobic hashtags like #coronajihad and #muslimvirus that have been flooding social media since the pandemic began. We have an exclusive that reveals the extent to which hate speech has penetrated Covid-19 conversation. Here are the highlights:

  • The hashtag #Coronajihad has run rampant on Twitter since late March. Posts featuring it and a range of anti-Muslim rhetoric have also been shared widely on all platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram  
  • The majority of social media users creating and sharing such content are young men between the ages of 18 and 34, based in India or the United States
  • In many cases, Islamophobic content blaming Muslims for the spread of the virus was first posted to Twitter by Indian Hindu nationalists, but was later amplified by global Islamophobic individuals and groups

Why this matters: “As a result of these hashtags, we saw Muslims in India being denied healthcare, women who were pregnant and in labor were turned away from hospitals, there was widespread discrimination against Muslim businesses, which were boycotted,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, the organization that conducted the study. 

Legislators in Brazil are trying to tackle the tricky issue of fake news and platform regulation. As Brazil’s coronavirus numbers continue to grow unabated —surpassing 1,000 deaths a day for the first time earlier this week — the nation’s Senate will consider a law regulating fake news.

  • The law will hold internet platforms responsible for user content
  • President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies, who have largely been beneficiaries of fake news campaigns, oppose the measure
  • But so do many of the president’s critics, on the grounds that it poses a threat to freedom of speech, and that its sponsors are attempting to hastily pass the law without adequate public debate

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has now fired a second health minister who publicly contradicted the president’s enthusiasm for chloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. Of course, Donald Trump is another leader who has embraced chloroquine. And so have millions of people worldwide — among other, even more dangerous options. 

Isobel Cockrell examines the dangers of the surprisingly widespread “why not” attitude when it comes to drinking bleach. Keep reading.

The harm in “What’s the harm?” by Isobel Cockerell 

When President Trump said he was taking antimalarial hydroxychloroquine as a “preventative” against Covid-19, he falsely assured the public: “It doesn’t harm you.” 

The words sounded familiar, reminding me of a conversation I had last month with Irene Klaver, a woman in the Netherlands who was taking drops of disinfectant several times a day to ward off Covid-19. She said the same thing: “if it is a possibility and it is safe, why not?” 

This “what’s the harm?” refrain is common among anti-science groups, explained Britt Marie Hermes, a former naturopathic doctor who reformed in 2015 and is now a staunch critic of alternative and quack medicine. 

Hermes was reminded of her former life as a pseudoscience practitioner when Trump made his now-infamous comments suggesting disinfectant could be injected into the body. 

“The way that he described it was so typical of a naturopathic sales pitch,” Hermes said. “My first words to my husband were, ‘I guarantee he’s talking to a naturopath.’” 

Hermes described how distressing it has been to watch false, unproven and dangerous cures promoted so forcefully. 

“I so easily recognize it as bunk that it’s hard for me to tap into it, because I’ve been involved in what has been peddled, and know the harm that can be done from that,” she said.

As to this harm, first of all, there’s an economic factor, Hermes explained. 

“If I was a struggling naturopath trying to keep my business alive during the pandemic, I think I would be highly tempted to capitalize on the president’s comments.” 

Alternative medicine sales pitches disproportionately target those with insecure access to conventional healthcare – after all, the temptation to buy a one-off “miracle cure” is an enticing false alternative to potentially crippling hospital bills. 

“We always see a spike in these types of alternative therapies and treatments – and people running towards them – when there seems to be a lot of fear and insecurity,” Hermes said.

It is extremely harmful to drink bleach; meanwhile, hydroxychloroquine can cause serious heart problems, and other alternative therapies often contain untested chemicals and compounds that lead to potentially fatal side-effects.

Hungry for more?

Who can take on trolls? Elves of course. Here’s a great tale from Czech Republic about doctors, students and even soldiers who have joined a movement to counter anti-Western and anti-EU propaganda. 

And here is a brilliant video via a reader: this post-lockdown reunion between a Spanish farmer and his donkey is about as tear-jerking as an animal video can be. Not to be missed!

Have a happy Memorial Day weekend if you are in the United States and don’t mix bleach into your quarantinis wherever you are!  

We’ll be back next Wednesday.   

Natalia 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Natalia Antelava

Natalia Antelava is the Editor-in-Chief of Coda Story.

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